The Age of the Sex Olympics III: Twenty-first Century Blues

Modern film and television have little interest in engagement with the outside world. They are distinguished by their nihilism and love of violence; their recycling of ideas; and their tunnel vision.

We live in an age of cultural recycling. Cinema is largely made up of sequels, prequels and remakes. Modern media thinks that self-referentiality – in-jokes and references to television and film, pop culture and celebrities – are witty and original. This is why dreck like The Lego Movie – in which pop culture references substitute for genuine humour and imagination – are popular.

This is a sign of cultural stagnation.

The most popular genres are science fiction, fantasy and superhero films, which are largely vehicles for flashy special effects. It is worth considering here what science fiction actually is.

Science fiction has three main purposes: to hold a mirror to society; to imagine what the future could be, based on current trends; and to instil a particular attitude. Its worldview is material, rational and empiricist, aiming to understand and master external reality through knowledge, and celebrating the mindset that makes this possible. The hero is frequently a scientist, who is intelligent, curious and observant, and has a strong sense of justice and compassion; for instance, Professor Quatermass or Doctor Who.

 

Modern science fiction is “cult”. Cult is ultimately about itself: a closed system. It may borrow some of the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, aliens, etc.) but it is not interested in the same things. It is disengaged from the real world; instead, it is written for fans, and emphasises continuity, series mythology, character arcs and origin stories. Story arcs are more important than stories, and set pieces more important than plot. It is written for fans who like arguing about details, want to identify with characters and write pornographic fan-fiction. We’ve all met them – the bore who corners you at a party and whose idea of conversation is to reel off statistics about spaceships in Battlestar Galactica.  Unsurprisingly, cult leads to tunnel vision.

Earlier science fiction and telefantasy programmes wanted to make people think and broaden their horizons, as well as entertain them. The works of Nigel Kneale dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age and the welfare state. The Doomwatch team monitored scientific research for possible threats to humanity, and dealt with such issues as environmentalism, pollution, urban depression, genetic engineering and the complicity of big business. Doctor Who began as a semi-educational series, teaching children about science and history, and became about humanist intellect, investigative and exploratory, asking questions and making sense of the world. Nowadays, it’s more interested in its own mythology.

The same was true of other genres. Anthology series such as The Wednesday / Play of the Week / Month examined social issues. Spy series like Danger Man were a crash course in international relations, set in foreign countries against a background of contemporary politics.

 

The Goon Show, Monty Python or The Goodies satirised the absurdity of contemporary life, bureaucracy, the class system and current fads and trends.

Most fiction assumed that the world was a fascinating place, and had protagonists who were well balanced, sophisticated, clever and enjoyed life. John Steed and Mrs Peel crossed swords and then were off for diabolical masterminds and champagne.

Tintin, James Bond and the Saint travelled around the world from Peru to the Poles, from the Orient to the North Pole, from the depths of the sea to outer space.

Tintin Red Rackham

Moore Saint

Mysterious Cities of Gold journeyed the length of South America, and ended each episode with a short documentary on history or geography.

Such tales opened up the world; they made audiences curious and whetted their appetites for travel, even if only from their armchair.

An adventurous, optimistic attitude is a healthy one – but it’s not one that is encouraged by the media.

Our entertainment lacks expansiveness, cosmopolitanism, curiosity, a sense of fun and interest in the world. We seem as a society to be in love with misery; the more of it, the better.

Characters don’t have personalities; they have angst and trauma, revealed in elaborate back stories, and brood and mope. The most popular television series feature sociopaths in a moraDexterl wasteland: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are also sociopaths. In the movies, Man of Steel (which particularly disappointed me, as I was expecting a panegyric to Stalin), Batman and the Daniel Craig 007 are sociopaths. Everything is “dark” (when it’s not blue lit).

The movie that most triumphantly set its face against the cult of gloom was The Lone Ranger. The film is unabashedly brilliant: exhilarating, exuberant, subversive and rightfully angry, dealing as it does with genocide and land exploitation committed in the name of capitalism. It champions the individual over big business, idealism and noble causes over greed and self-interest, and proclaims that freedom – fun, humour and cleverness – are better than angst. Hardly surprising that it was a dismal flop in the States.

Angst and trauma, death and darkness, despair and gloom – that’s what life’s all about it. “Sadness,” as Steven Moffat remarked in one of his more idiotic moments, “is happiness for deep people.” Really, what’s so great about sadness?

Such stories (as a wise man once remarked) tell us that we’re dull and damned, as well as being damned dull.

Why, when there’s a world out there, focus on such things? (Something whispers: So that people won’t focus on the world.) If someone thinks the world is an awful place, full of miserable people who do ghastly things to each other from the moment they pop out of the uterus and strangle their mother with their umbilical cord, will they really want to engage with the world? Or are they more likely to lock themselves away and brood?

Life’s too big and complex to be boiled down to gloom, doom and atom bomb dropping planes’ sonic boom. Life’s this great rich glorious thing out there, full of colour and excitement and adventure.

Good art — movies and television shows, theatre, books, music, painting or sculpture — opens up the world. It inspires; it engages with the world; it reflects life in its complexity; and it broadens the audience’s minds. As such, it has an important role to play in shaping people’s attitude to the world. Television and film that makes people think about the world makes for a healthier democracy.

Works that show life as bleak and miserable distort the world – and are therefore dangerous. If people are forced to accept a myth rather than truth – as Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC, observed in both Nazi Germany and McCarthyist America – intellectual freedom was stifled and tyranny followed.

NPG x16892; Sir Hugh Carleton Greene by Godfrey Argent

Television, Greene believed, should be:

“a mirror behind what is going on in contemporary society. I don’t care whether what is reflected in the mirror is bigotry, injustice and intolerance or accomplishment and inspiring achievement. I only want the mirror to be honest, without any curves and held with as steady a hand as may be.

“If those who look out, with the eyes we have given them, see only the familiar, the comfortable, the reassuring, then surely we have failed, for the world is not like that. If we ensure that only the ugly, the bestial, the violent and the tawdry appear before them, then just as surely we have failed, for the world is not like that either.”

The Age of the Sex Olympics II: Technology

Many of my views on television and film production are influenced by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s series, About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who (Mad Norwegian Press), and by Miles’s blog < http://beasthouse-lm2.blogspot.com.au/>.

 

There is now a single aesthetic for film and television. The American model – a Hollywood film on a smaller budget – is the norm. This limits the potential of the medium. In Britain, well into the 1980s, television was seen as a sort of theatre for the masses that had cameras pointing at it, with an emphasis on scripts and acting.This is as true of William Hartnell era Doctor Who (1963-66) as it is of The Forsyte Saga (1967), I Claudius (1976) – arguably the best television drama ever made – or Blackadder (1983-89).

If you think of television as a movie on a smaller screen, rather than its own medium, this reduces the number of stories you can tell.

Paradoxically, the better the technology, the less one can do with it, and the more possibilities are ruled out.

A quick technological explanation: Up to the ’70s, film was reserved for location shoots, and video for studio work. Video looks smoother and high res, but film looks grainer (fewer frames per second). However, film is the dominant stock for cinema, so feels more expensive to viewers. From 1975, lighter video cameras meant location footage could be shot on video – and locations could be made to look like studios. This breaks down the film/location – video/studio divide. Nowadays, filmification is in: shoot on (cheap) video and apply digital filters to make it look like it was shot on film. Film is increasingly giving way to digital video, because of shifts towards high definition TV, and video is thought of as bad.

If television is to have a certain look, it becomes more expensive to produce (thanks to post-production costs and editing), so the number of shows you can make diminishes. Television becomes a product, a commodity to be sold and consumed. It has to sell. And what sells? What makes money? Lowest common denominator programmes: reality television and game shows. Programmes that can be exported overseas, with emotional storylines, and nothing too difficult. British television now largely consists of costume drama, crime shows and soaps.

Secondly, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of the picture and the quality of the content. Modern television is as much or more about the spectacle than it is about the content. Modern television is realistic and representational; everything seen (unless explicitly coded as a dream or flashback) happens as the viewer sees it. Because the image is presented direct, the viewer has to work less, and is less imaginatively challenged. Miles & Wood (About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who, 1980–1984, Seasons 18 to 21, Mad Norwegian Press, 2007, p. 129) argue: “The number of possible interpretations made by anyone born after 1990 is drastically smaller than for those raised in the 1960s. ‘Realism’ is the level of unthinking interpretation, and anything made to avoid disturbing this process.” The audience are spoon-fed, and become as passive as the consumers in The Year of the Sex Olympics.

Audiences in days gone by had a very different relationship with television (one which involved the danger of severe burns to the genitalia and, in those days, imprisonment). Watching television was active. Viewers switched on a small black and white box in the corner, waited for it to warm up, and had to participate to make sense of the image and consciously decide to believe in it.

This gave television more licence to be strange and thought provoking. Large audiences enjoyed Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner, the Jonathan Miller Alice in Wonderland, Out of the Unknown and The Wednesday Play, which were stylised, often surreal. Bizarre imagery, symbolism, and abstract use of sound and light were standard techniques, were used to convey a subjective (emotional or intellectual) view of the world.

 

The turning point is the mid-’70s, when special effects become something the audience is supposed to believe in (real at the level of the story) rather than an aesthetic representation of an event. Once television is expected to be realistic, its ability to produce non-realistic programs declines, to the point where it is almost unthinkable today. Consider The Prisoner. The 1960s series was a surreal allegory about freedom and autonomy versus conformity; the remake ignores the philosophy and focuses on Six’s relationships. The original culminated in “Free for All”, an explosion of Pop Art like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, whereas the 2009 remake explains everything as (yawn) virtual reality.

Prisoner_sm

The emphasis on realism and special effects creates a preference for the familiar and a craving for visceral excitement. Most television today consists of familiar characters in familiar situations. Audiences want to empathise with characters they know well, in the sort of programme they’ve seen before, rather than have their ideas challenged or learn something new. Such programmes only reinforce what people know; they do not inspire curiosity or wonder, only familiarity, which breeds not contempt but complacency. Television has become a comfort for consumers, bland and anodyne.

Special effects lead to a shorter attention span, increasing inability to focus on longer scenes, and an addiction to stimulation.  This is also true of computer games; there’s a distinct correlation between the imagination needed to play an adventure game, which rewards exploration, curiosity and lateral thinking, and the higher quality graphics and the monolithic domination of action games today.

Dickens adaptations end up looking like the Bourne films, complete with Shaky Camera ™, in a desperate attempt to convince audiences that 1850s London is dynamic and modern – a hip, with it, really happening place, even though the women are wearing bombazine, crinolines and hoop skirts, and the men sprout Dundreary whiskers and mutton chops.

Handheld cameras are cheap, but a whooshing camera, jittery screens, blurred backgrounds, desaturated colour and rapid cutting – considered more “artistic” than a clearer picture, and useful for concealing budgetary shortcomings – make it difficult to concentrate and are unaesthetic. Shots that are not composed are irritating to the eye. Shallow focus by its very nature removes the context and background from the shot. Two people in the same shot, sitting next to each other, one blurry and the other in focus; or a person in clear focus against a blurred background look wrong. All these techniques contribute to a loss of visual creativity. Whereas look at a good episode of The Avengers or Poirot, both of which are entertainment – and are witty, stylish programmes made by people who know how to use a camera. “Too Many Christmas Trees,” to pick an Avengers episode at random, has surreal dream sequences; a visually rich mansion; an Op Art table; and a fight in a hall of mirrors.

The dumbing down of television is a vicious circle. The more people watch bad television, the dumber they become; the dumber they are, the more they want bad television, which makes them dumb.